I suppose there is no "typical" black reaction to the newest round of investigations into the District government's contracting program, but the attitude of a one-time contractor with the`city comes close to what I've been hearing all over town.
This former contractor, who doesn't want his name used, is certain that the 17-month probe will leave some careers deservedly broken and some successful black entrepreneurs in jail. And he is certain that the investigation is at least partially motivated by race.
"Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered," he says. His point is that it is perfectly reasonable for black contractors -- "pigs" -- to expect a few breaks from a black-run city government, just as white contractors get the breaks when their friends are in charge. But a few of them have tried to grab off too much of the action, and these "hogs" are ripe for the slaughter.
"If they had been willing to spread it around a little, it could have helped to build a much-needed entrepreneurial base in Washington," he believes. "A lot of the contracts are in small pieces, and there was no reason to keep awarding those to the same handful of contractors." But while he abhors the greed, he also believes that U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova is focusing unfairly on black contractors, ignoring the whites who still get most of the city's business.
You hear that a lot in black Washington. The impression, you will hear, is that white contractors do their work efficiently and honestly, while blacks are incompetents who get city work only because they are either friends of the mayor or because they are willing to pay bribes to contracting officers.
"Is diGenova investigating white contractors?" one black businesswoman asks? "After all, two-thirds of the city's business is with white contractors. He ran his undercover operation, complete with wiretaps and the whole bit, for a year and a half. Why have all the raids been on the offices of black contractors? Why are the names of blacks the only ones that are leaked?"
The explanations vary. Some black Washingtonians see it as part of a conspiracy to discredit blacks generally and restore the city to white political control. Others see it as part of a diGenova vendetta against Mayor Marion Barry, who survived an earlier round of probes largely unscathed and then proceeded to accuse the U.S. attorney of running a "lynching."
The earlier investigation embarrassed diGenova, whose office had encouraged the expectation that Barry would be indicted for corruption or at least for drug abuse. The prosecutor apparently expected to put the squeeze on convicted cocaine dealer Karen Johnson, with whom the mayor admitted a "personal" relationship. But instead of providing the information he wanted, Johnson did eight months on a contempt charge. Because of that embarrassment, a lot of us had thought that the latest leaks meant he had Barry cold. But so far, he has come up empty except for the subpoenaing of two pairs of his honor's shoes.
That doesn't mean diGenova won't find anything this time. The probe could drag on for months, and it would be surprising if it didn't net at least a couple of "hogs." The problem is that in the meantimel the impression is abroad that the city government is riddled with corruption and its black contractors hopelessly incompetent. This hurts all the more because of the widespread presumption of incompetence when it comes to black professionals.
White contractors who get rich paving city streets or whatever are presumed to know what they are doing. Blacks, particularly those who land such smaller, "softer" contracts as architectural, engineering or feasibility studies, are presumed to be ripping off the taxpayers. It is almost as though it is suspicious on its face for a black businessman to do business with the city. And since many of these black businessmen, no matter how competent, have trouble landing lucrative contracts outside the government, the implications for black entrepreneurship are both obvious and disastrous.
I offer no excuse for anybody official who is soliciting bribes from contractors or pocketing public funds. After all, as Bill Cosby might say, it's my money.
But diGenova must be aware of the damage he is doing to black officials and entrepreneurs with his well-leaked fishing expedition. If he comes up empty -- or even substantially empty -- this time, he ought to be encouraged to seek another line of work.